Sunday, 17 October 2021

The still, small voice that whispers to our burdens - Ringwood Unitarians gathering October 2021

Our gathering on 10 October 2021 was again held on Zoom.  In the background to the gathering was an awareness of Black History Month and World Mental Health Day.

The chalice lighting words were by W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963), African American Educator and Civil Rights Activist.  

"Give us grace, … to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease, or the words of men’s mouths, or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us—the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty—all these and more. But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifices and death. … 
Grant us … the spirit of Esther, that we say: I will go unto the King and if I perish, I perish."

DuBois was himself an agnostic, in fact some of his biographers have described him as virtually atheist. 

His later life was a far cry from his Congregationalist background.  He went so far as to decline to lead public prayer when so invited.  He was ardently opposed to religion being taught in public schools. 

In his work he wrote beautifully and with genuine passion, and yet when he wrote he drew on the images of his childhood and a shared cultural story, a shared spiritual history, despite having left certain aspects of faith behind.

How we understand shared story and tradition needn’t be a barrier between us, nor cut us off from something that has meant a great deal to many over the years.  W. E. B. DuBois still found meaning in the tale of Esther, possibly because he identified with her having being racialised as a member of a group regarded as second-class citizens but also who, through good fortune, had been put in a position of influence and safety, despite living with her people in exile.  And DuBois was still touched by the drama of the Crucifixion.

As he wrote, and spoke in public, that shared tradition of stories and imagery crossed the chasm between his beliefs and the beliefs of many he was addressing.

This may ring true for many of us in Unitarianism.  We who come together with our different and often changing beliefs can share stories and imagery; we can share inspiration and consolation; we can share the passion of our faith.  The historical tradition in which we find ourselves need not be a barrier: it can be a bridge. 

After our chalice had been lit, there were hymns from YouTube, which we could sing along with.  And, as is the Didymus tradition, we held a period of silence in which to recall privately what we hold to be of ultimate value, and to reflect on how our recent behaviour had matched up to the values we privately profess. 

As well as music and silence, as usual we had two readings, but for once they comprised one long passage split into two.  The passage was taken from the Bible, the First Book of Kings, chapter 19 verses 3-16.  

In the first section of the reading (up to verse 9), we find Elijah on the run from the authorities.  He has just worked an incredible miracle, one of those truly ‘glory days’ moments.  But how quickly the tide turned again, and now is he alone, in fear for his life, and weary unto death with it all. 

This short reading brings other moments in the Bible to mind.  Moses leading the people in the desert, Jonah under the tree hiding from his ministry, Jesus going into the wilderness and later in the olive garden.  And running through all these moments, these narratives and images, there is a yearning for better days, days when not feeling so alone, so burdened, so overwhelmed.  All of us, and all communities, think back to times where the seats around us were fuller and people did more together, agreed on more; when that call to make things better was something we seemed to share.  This sense of dejection and of currently living in poorer times is something perhaps many of us will be able to relate to, to some degree.

Yet can we not all recall those balm-filled moments where just for a time we have felt refreshed, revived, lightened?  Perhaps it was a sunset after a long day; perhaps the wind in the trees when our thoughts were far away; or a phrase in a book we were reading; the scent of incense in an old church we had stopped in; or the half-smile of someone, just when we needed it.

In the second part of the passage we find God asking,

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Twice God says this to our protagonist, and the words are filled with warmth and with a little sorrow.  They are like the words of a parent finding their adult child weeping in the kitchen of their marriage home; or on visiting them in the big city, where they went for a new high-powered job, and finding them on edge and lacking sleep.  There is no accusation in the tone, there is no sense of disappointment, nor of surprise.  What is asked here is not a question looking for an answer, not really.  It is a gentle reminder, a being one-with-the-other, and showing them again who they are.

In times of sadness, of weariness, of disheartenment, our vision can narrow to only what we don’t have, what we can’t do, what we are not and wish that we were.  It can be as if our whole being becomes defined by our lack, by our loss, by our sorrow, by our pain.  It is not easy, nor always possible, to pull ourselves out of this. 

May there always be someone to hand at times like this to ask us:

“What are you doing here?”

May there be a friend, a ‘still, small voice’, to reach out to us and remind us of who we are, to help us look up and beyond where we find ourselves. 

May we ask ourselves often and without accusation or disappointment:

“What are you doing here?”

And may we be watchful in those around us, and those we meet along the way, for when we can be that ‘still, small voice’ that asks:

“What are you doing here?”

Today is only a moment in our stories, perhaps not even a chapter.  What are we doing here?  Perhaps it’s time to turn the page?

Saturday, 25 September 2021

It is not a big deal that is asked of us, but just a little - Ringwood #Unitarians gathering online 12 Sep 2021

 ( Bible story illustrations courtesy of )

After opening prayer, and the lighting of the chalice, we had a pause to reflect on what matters to us and how we have lived up to that.  In other churches this activity is usually the action involved in the reciting of a creed.

Then there were two readings from the Bible, both from the New International Version:  1 Kings 17:10-22 and Mark 12:41-44.

The reading from 1 Kings told the story of a widow from Zarephath who was part of a community, or even region, that was starving to death through drought; who nonetheless assisted the prophet Elijah with water and bread.

Jesus’ observation, recorded in the reading from Mark, was of another widow who donated from among her last few coins to the alms collected at the temple.

Our president for the day then reflected on these readings as follows.

Two widows in the same small area of the middle east, almost a thousand years apart, and yet — depressingly — both still subject to the same vulnerability and financial uncertainty, both still recognizable as epitomizing a social and economic group much wider than their individual back stories. 

“You may well know the two readings I have chosen, either as stories you were told, or texts you perhaps studied. They may awake in you feelings of nostalgia, or they may provoke old arguments you’d rather leave behind. On the other hand, you may not have heard them before today.

“I’ll wager, though, that every one of us approaches these stories through a cloud of unknowing. We make racial, class, intellectual, and, yes, theological assumptions about them.  Assumptions that, for the most part, say more about our personal journeys than they say about the journeys these stories have travelled to reach us today. 

“As Unitarians, we approach the Bible aware of the journey it has been on, and, in our better moments, aware of the journey we as individuals and as communities have been on. We do not look to the Bible to ‘prove’ anything  it is a tradition we share in and can draw inspiration from. We do not end discussions with the Bible; rather, it is a place we can begin them.

“In that first reading we find the widow preparing to make a final meal before she and her son starve to death in the famine that is sweeping the land. She encounters a stranger who asks for a little bit of the very little she has; and she agrees to share her last supper with him. There is no indication she does this because of the wild promises he makes her — she is already expecting to go to her death, and the little she is sharing won’t change that either way.  This widow, already wracked by the pains of hunger, burdened by the grief of watching the child she brought into the world die before her eyes, is yet open to the plight of another, of a stranger who is thirsty and hungry, a shared plight. This widow who cannot save herself nevertheless does what she can to help another, to stand with another. Pain and sorrow do not make her miserly nor callous to those she meets: she does not horde the little she has: she does not stand apart. This seems almost too much to believe (much less credible than pots that never empty, or people coming back from the dead), and yet ….

“When I lived in Rome I remember a Sister, a Roman Catholic nun, at my university. She had an infectious laugh, a smile that could light up a room, and a kind word for everyone. I didn’t know her well, but one year the Christmas break was approaching and we got to casually talking. I asked her if she was going home to see her family. She wasn’t: her family were gone, her home was gone, everything was gone: all lost in the Rwandan genocide. She had survived only because she had been in Rome.

“I can’t imagine that kind of sorrow, that kind of darkness.  And yet there she was and there was her smile that lit up the room.

“I have no idea how much she had left to share or how little she kept for herself, but it shamed me. How often do I not spare a smile, even for a loved one, on a day that is not going to my plan? How often have I ignored that person who wanted to talk because I was too tired to give them the ten minutes I was probably going to spend scrolling on social media? Have I lashed out, enjoyed micro aggressions, to share the pain or frustration I am feeling, rather than looked to whatever scrap of hope I have instead?

“I do not make you wild promises of the cupboard never going bare, of the tank never hitting empty, and I do not say that we should give away all that we have to live on, as Jesus mentions in the second reading. Jesus does so love to push his point!  But rather I ask you to think of that ‘little bit’ you can still share, like the widow of Zarephath, that little bit you can still contribute to the community, like the widow in the temple.

“Something that stands out for me in that short second reading is the way we are invited to watch this second widow from without. Jesus does not share with us her backstory, so we do not have a context to empathize with. We are simply presented with a view of someone and asked to consider what being there that day has cost them.

“Ooh but now look — we are not faced with the virtue of this person: instead we are confronted with how our view, the view we share in and help build as a society, is wrong-headed. Society values the money that the ‘comfortably off’ spend on luxury above what the average person has to spend day-to-day. Society values the leisure time of the economically secure over the family time of the hourly worker. Do not we too, as communities of belief, often value the time of those able to attend multiple services and talks over that of those whose lives allow only for briefer times given over to spiritual reflection? Do we not value the experience of those who have had the opportunity and leisure to read widely, over those for whom such is not common place? Do we ask ourselves what it ‘costs’ to be with us when we gather in community? Not in terms of cash alone, but in terms of time, in terms of what demands we make on each other, in terms of the expectations we communicate? I don’t have answers to that, and I don’t think Jesus is offering any answers in this second reading either. 

“Just as in the first reading the widow of Zarephath inspires us to give a ‘little bit’ of what little we have, so in the second reading the widow in the temple challenges us to see that ‘little bit’ that we often overlook, that we often undervalue. 

“We all fall short of our highest ideals, and we are all products of the world view we grew up in. Perhaps everything I have said here is pie in the sky, but if striving even for a pipe dream can make things a little bit better I’m game for that. I don’t ask you to accept everything I’ve said here, you might not like how I’ve said it, but think about it …. Just a ‘little bit’.”

Friday, 13 August 2021

Wholeness is not the same as fullness - emptiness is also needed for becoming - Ringwood Unitarians gathering in August 2021

Still not ready to meet face to face in the prevailing pandemic conditions, in August 2021 we gathered once again on Zoom.  We started our meeting by holding silence, so that we could each do the equivalent of (silently) reciting our personal creed.

The theme of meeting for reverence was ‘wholeness’ in contrast with human brokenness, and it pivoted around some words by the American author Oriah Mountain Dreamer: “When we surrender, when we do not fight with life when she calls upon us, we are lifted, and the strength to do what needs to be done finds us, because we have remembered that we can choose to serve the only cause that matters: life herself.”

We heard readings from Taoism (from the Tao Teh Ching, contrasting emptiness and busy-ness), and Christianity (a story from the Desert Fathers and Mothers on becoming whole enough to see to the heart of things).  We heard that the Buddha’s original message seems to have been cast in positive form – as common sense would expect, his teaching was a call to the ‘more’ of life, not to the ending of it, and certainly not a call to run away from an imperfect world.

We had some prayers and meditations including a meditation by Richard S. Gilbert on a comment by Dåg Hammarskjold regarding our chalice of being (how each day we receive, we carry, we give back).  The reflection had also included an insight on the importance of space and silence if we are to be truly whole, rather than just ‘full’ or occupied.  One participant said, “It made me think of the constellations in the sky.  We think of them as pictures drawn in the stars and yet there is more darkness than light to them.  It is on the space between the stars that we see the shapes form.”

In the self-contained way that has to be used during online gatherings, we sang two hymns from our green hymn books, which focused on the Life that makes all things new and the ‘human becoming’ in oneness and sharing.  After our candles of joys and concerns which turned out to be focused on the darker side of living, it was good to watch a YouTube video in which many sorts of different animals greeted their human companions with what can only be described as hugs.